• Jennifer Buchanan

Music Therapy in Northern Canada

In the summer of 2019, I met Daniel. Daniel attended a workshop I facilitated on the effects of music and music therapy for children who have experienced trauma.  


After my class, Daniel introduced himself, and I learned he was a social worker from Nunavut, Canada's northernmost territory. Daniel shook my hand and simply said: "we need you up North, would you please come?" When Daniel said North, I knew he meant the Arctic Circle. I had never been there before and was intrigued, so how could I say no? Within a matter of weeks, I was contacted by the Arctic Child and Youth Foundation, and after a single conversation, they booked my flights for Igloolik. This tiny island was a small part of the massive territory. A place where temperatures in the fall would hover around -20C on a good day. It would take a day and a half and four flights to get there. After a few necessary purchases, including a warmer jacket, new winter walking books, and a few online planning meetings, I packed my instruments. I started the long journey towards an unknown part of my own country.


Welcome to Igloolik, Nunavut

As I flew the final leg from Hall Beach to Igloolik, I realized that for much of my life in Canada, I had heard the saying - coast to coast to coast......but in truth, I never thought I would ever see the third coast. It should be on everyone's bucket list.

The third coast up North is everything you imagine it to be when you look out of your small prop plane - wild, exciting, and vast. 

When I landed in Igloolik and walked off the plane into a square structure covered in snow and ice. I met by the rest of the trauma team, and they asked immediately how the weather was 'down south?' I have lived in Canada my whole life; this would be the first time I would be called a 'Southerner.'


The Igloolik hamlet is located almost centrally in Nunavut and is home to approximately 2200 people (1/20 of the total population in Nunavut). My luggage was placed in the back of a large pick-up truck, and I was driven through uneven roads past several boxed style homes, with snowmobiles in the driveway. The light in the sky was difficult to determine. Even though it was dark, there seemed to be many colours. It had been a long time since I had seen so many stars in the sky.


I learned that the traditional Inuit culture still plays a significant role in daily life. Fishing and hunting are essential to residents all year round. On my second night, we had fermented walrus dropped off at our door for our next supper. 


I have had many opportunities in my career as a music therapist - this was no doubt going to be one of the most memorable.


Music Sets the Tone

During the phone conversations leading up to the trip, I was reminded to stay open to 'what the residents of Igloolik need.' As a natural planner, this can be difficult for me. So I did what I often do and planned 57 ideas knowing that only a few may be used. 


We stayed in a comfortable home that had a basement that transformed into a gathering place. Our first guests would be leaders within the community who worked with youth. They would include teachers, counsellors, uncles, and Elders. They ranged in age from 23 - 75. 


Although the ACYF intended to reach the youth directly during this first meeting, it became quickly evident (especially after the first music therapy exercise) that the leadership group hoped we would spend time with them during our first visit to their hamlet. They wanted to share knowledge and ideas of how they can reach their youth better. After the first exercise with music (an instrument improvisation), they felt music might be the best path. Over the following days, I would hear similar sentiments. 


Simple Supplies and Simple Songs

The facilities were perfect for this initial workshop - intimate and private. We would have an interpreter for the duration, and I quickly learned that the rhythm of moving between English and Inuktitut would become the music itself. The translation changed the pacing, and I found myself feeling more relaxed and able to listen more deeply to a language I did not understand. It was wonderful.


We used the simplistic of supplies - a few instruments, paper and pens seemed to be enough. Later the Elders would bring homemade instruments, including several shakers made out of caribou hooves. 


As predicted, many of my planned interventions were not used, but those that were seemed to be well received. I would observe many smiles, unsolicited movements, holding of hands, humming, furrowed brows during songwriting exercises, the sharing of stories, crying, and the telling of hopes for the future.

I was grateful to my earliest training as a music therapist. It prepared me to be comfortable in the moment and to remain witness to where someone else is - wherever that may be.

The skillful and therapeutic use of the creative arts never seems to fail to bring groups together, and in this hamlet, there was no exception. 


Trauma, Healing, and Learning


It was a challenging workshop to facilitate because the subject matter was intense, and participants' reactions, questions, and needs were unpredictable. Above all else, it was crucial to create a safe, healthy learning environment. I was required to stay attuned to individual participants' feelings and reactions and being flexible in my approach ("going with the flow").


The bonds we created opened a sense of safety to speak about the problematic things between the Inuit and the Canadian establishment (of which I, as a Southerner, felt a part of very much). 


We discussed if people don't have the opportunity to heal from trauma, they may unknowingly pass it on to others. They recognized their children had experienced difficulties with attachment, disconnection from their extended families and culture, and high levels of stress from family and community members who have been dealing with the impacts of generational trauma.


We made more music and cried. We discussed possible next steps.

I was grateful to some of the recommended readings before my travels. I firmly believe 'The Inconvenient Indian' by Thomas King should be mandatory reading in every North American student. 


Facilitators in the North of any kind need to have a good understanding of Inuit and Indigenous history and culture, including events that have contributed to historical trauma and the many aspects of Inuit culture and society that have enabled Inuit to persevere and move towards healing and wellness.  


Facilitators also need to be aware of traumatic experiences in their own life, family, and community and be able to take care of themselves while facilitating this workshop.  


I was grateful to travel with such a knowledgeable team who helped me navigate language, approach, and best care. I still have much to learn.


One Elder's Story


Loneliness affects many Elders throughout North America and elsewhere. When a spouse passes, when children no longer come by regularly, and friends are not physically able to visit, life can feel lonely. Adjusting to many hours by yourself can take a toll and bring forth feelings of sadness. The eldest member of the group recognized this feeling. She shared that she felt lonely.

After making music and speaking to others about her feelings, she began to smile and laugh. The translator shared that she was starting to feel re-connected to the community she had been a part of since birth.

As she listened to a piece of music she had never heard before she drew images that came to mind. When the music ended, she shared her drawing. For her, the music evoked feelings of freedom and connection. Over the next several hours (and days), the group discussed how to increase opportunities to connect more often so she would no longer feel lonely.


Unsolicited Comments from the Workshop Attendees

  • I don't remember feeling this happy.

  • I didn't know music could be therapeutic.

  • I didn't think of sharing music with youth.

  • Let's get together and make instruments together at our next meeting

  • I feel lonely. This is helping me connect to others. I would like to have people over to my home.

  • I want to help the youth here.

  • My son said he hasn't seen me this happy in a long time.

  • My husband said I am seeming more youthful again.


I would be grateful to learn that this was just the beginning of my visits. I would return two months later to work with more community members, including several youth.  

My goal is to continue to listen carefully, throughout every new experience, and when words are not enough, I will remember to let music start the conversation.

Jennifer is a certified music therapist in Canada, President of JB Music Therapy, a regular presenter at conferences, and the author of 'Tune In' and 'Wellness Incorporated.' 


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